Author: Clark Scally
Jesus had one of the most controversial celebrity marriages of all time. Just 100 years after the death of Christ, Christian theologians did not agree on whether or not Jesus was, in fact, a married man. Last Thursday, former Occidental Religious Studies professor Dr. Karen King gave a lecture in Keck Theatre about her research of ancient apocryphal scripture in which Jesus speaks about discipleship and his wife. In Sept. of 2012, King publicly announced her studies of a fragment of scripture in which it is written: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” and then ends in a tear. Forensic tests run by independent laboratories are still determining the fragment’s authenticity and exact date of origin. King did not know when the tests and analyses would be completed.
The size of a credit-card, the damaged, incomplete Egyptian Coptic papyrus scripture immediately sparked a worldwide sensation over the internet. The origins of the Coptic writing are shrouded in mystery. An anonymous private collector first presented the papyrus to King in 2010. It is unknown where the papyrus was discovered or when it left Egypt to arrive at Harvard Divinity School, where King has taught since her departure from Occidental in 1997.
“We believe the papyrus to have come from the fourth or fifth century,” King said. “Any surviving papyrus from that period either came from a trash heap or a burial site.”
King believes the trash heap theory to be more likely, given the poor condition of the writing. Fortunately, dilapidated ancient scrolls are just another day at the office for King. She works on a set of recently discovered Christian gospels that were originally conceived in the second and third centuries. They survive as copies made over 100 years after the original scriptures, such as the Gospel of Philip and other texts that did not make the cut into the modern Bible canon. The papyrus fragment fits into the existing trend of texts King has already identified.
In the Gospel of Philip, discussed by King at her Occidental lecture on Feb. 7, Jesus speaks of marriage and sexuality extensively. He also refers to Mary Magdalene as his close companion whom he kisses more often than his other disciples, much to the concern of Apostles Peter and Matthew.
“The papyrus fragment is not evidence Jesus was married, it merely shows certain early followers said he was married,” King said. “There are no modern scholarship articles about Jesus being married, either.”
The lecture at Keck was the first time King presented certain new in-depth research on the theological debates that surround the writing of the Gospels and the mysterious papyrus fragment.
“This was all before the solidification of canon, when the role of women and sexuality were not decided,” King said.
King also explained that many early Christian theologians believed that followers of Christ should be celibate and that marriage was a surrender to sinful passions. Religious Studies Professor Kristi Upson-Saia explained why these beliefs, and thus these findings, are so important and so controversial.
“It’s fascinating, understanding how and why people are religious and how it’s important to understand, as academics, to study, how people use religion to make meaning in their life,” she said. “Religion is shot through everything, it’s in all aspects of life.”
Indeed, the reaction to the news of the tiny Coptic papyrus fragment has been very polarizing if King’s email account is any indication.
“Overnight, the news just exploded,” King said. “It never would have happened without the internet. People actually think I said Jesus was married! They either like it or they don’t.”
A member of the audience asked how King was handling the attention and the pressure.
“I lost eight pounds in the first week,” King answered. “The Divinity School installed a panic button in my office due to concerns for my physical safety. Most of my job since this has come out is to throw cold water on everything.”
This article has been archived, for more requests please contact us via the support system.